It's been one month since Orange is the New Black premiered on Netflix and if you haven't finished yet, you're making a mistake. And don't even get me started on those of you who haven't begun watching.
Unlike Netflix's previous original series, which were self-indulgent (House of Cards), uneven (Arrested Development) and downright bizarre (Hemlock Grove), Orange has inspired a passionate following precisely because it's nothing like its streaming predecessors — or like anything else on TV, for that matter. The summer lull between Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad is such an especially dark place for television that a comedy-drama set in a women's prison immediately became more than just a welcome change of pace; it became an obsession. And Orange is more than worthy of the attention.
When Orange begins, Piper (Taylor Schilling), a WASPy Smith grad, has just surrendered for a 15 month jail sentence. We first see the other inmates through the filter of Piper's white privilege, but almost immediately, stereotypes are deconstructed and nuanced characters are built in their place. Sophia, the devoted transgender spouse; Morello the delusional sweetheart; Crazy Eyes, the unhinged, poet devotee — every inmate is a fully formed character in her own right and together, they represent a full spectrum of femininity. But this isn't simply a 13-hour Bennetton ad. The characters are authentic portrayals of women, helping viewers — especially minorities — relate to and connect with characters on-screen in ways typically denied.
Yet in a rich and developed ensemble, Piper remains most like an archetype — the sheltered, self-important carrier of white liberal guilt — fueling fan hatred for the character. And although Piper's transformation over the season is subtle, the changes are there. Shaken by the fact that she isn't as good a person as she believed, Piper begins to crumble until, by season's end, she's become a watered down Walter White. Yet even after her final metamorphosis, Piper drives controversy as fans debate whether her "good blonde lady" routine is part of the show's social commentary and argue over the merits of her ex-girlfriend Alex. Is she the sexiest thing on TV or the worst character on an otherwise flawless show?
These debates have kept the series alive even after running through all 13 episodes (in a mere two days for us marathon sprinters). Thankfully, there's so much happening in Orange that it's easy to dissect, discuss and re-watch without growing bored. Hours can be spent reflecting on question like "Are Alex's eyebrows over-plucked?" or whether Daya and Bennet's relationship is romantic or unrealistic. And beyond the surface,Orange also pushes viewers to confront real issues that one might otherwise ignore, such as trans rights or the cycle of poverty.
Early on in the series, Piper tells her mother that she's no different than her fellow inmates. While it was nice to see Piper shed some of her artisanal elitism, it's made clear that the other inmates didn't just take the road less traveled. When Taystee is released near season's end, she's quickly overwhelmed by the unsupported chaos of the outside world. Not long after, she breaks probation and gets sent back to Litchfield on purpose. "Everyone I know is poor, in jail, or gone. Don't nobody ask 'bout how my day went. ... I know how to play it here," Taystee confesses, breaking a million hearts.
Even though Orange thrives at the tragically poignant, it remains above all a comedy. When it's not making you weep or cringe, it's making you laugh so hard it hurts. The jokes come in every form — silly, political, crass — and they stop the series from becoming too dark or preachy. And boy, are these jokes sharp. Taystee and Poussey's take on white politics would make Tina Fey proud.
Orange is a television unicorn: something so rare you never thought it'd actually exist. It not only succeeds as entertainment, but also is a show that demands respect. In retrospect, it shouldn't come as any big surprise that Orange has connected so strongly with viewers. It gave us realistic representations of women, smart writing, incredible comedy and enough gray area to keep us talking and debating until it returns in 2014.